“Dust Thou Art….”

I know that my title words are no longer the preferred usage on Ash Wednesday.  Yet since Ash Wednesday this year I’ve been both cursed and blessed with the death of close relatives and with notices of death among a wider circle of friends and acquaintances.   Cursed, blessed, and reminded that “unto dust we shall return.”

Cursed because death is the ultimate curse cast upon humanity as we were expelled from the garden.  (For the skeptical among us, I believe and assert that such ancient, biblical accounts of original curses and blessings are quite simply speaking obvious truths about our human condition.) Cursed by the loss of family and friends. Cursed with the sadness of mourning, as it comes to expression in our bodies and spirits. Of if you don’t like the idea of being cursed, then think of it as living under the shadow of that ancient curse, or as living with the consequences of that curse.

Yet the curse is also a blessing. I’m blessed by these recent deaths and not only because I affirm the crazy belief that death is indeed a portal to fuller life.  “We proclaim the mystery of death and resurrection.” We find the reality of death and resurrection in nature’s seasons as also in the life of Christ, and in the seasons of our own lives.  I believe in this mystery without much understanding and in ways I don’t try to imagine. Though I do believe that those who have died, recently and not so recently, are still with us.  A belief called the communion of saints in the Catholic lexicon.

But also blessed in a more immediate way, blessed with wakes and services that bring family and friends together to mourn and celebrate, to remember and in our different ways to hope.  Such death-occasioned forms of community are a great blessing which I’ve experienced this Lent.

Of course, my recent awareness of the death of others is also a function of my age. We octogenarians do talk about death, on zoom sessions or at a small breakfast table or….  We remember our dead and we share hopes for the kind of dying we ourselves will have.

Yet many commentators have expressed the idea that we progressive Americans don’t want to talk or think about death.  One astute critic called it our cultural “denial of death.”  This may of course be another of those half-truths espoused by intellectual elites who are out of touch with the beliefs and practices of us ordinary folk. (Think again of real Irish wakes and parish rosaries and funeral masses, and the many similar practices of other religious and non-religious communities.)  Yet I nonetheless think these commentators are onto something. There is among us a taboo on thinking and talking about death. A taboo that hurts us by causing us not to think realistically about death. Though I also think that of late this taboo, such as it ever was, seems to have been broken a bit.

I’m launched on a meandering reflection death, so let me continue to meander.

There are many memorable quotes about death which are worth recovering and pondering:  Death be not proud.  Dying he destroyed death.  Do not go gently into that sweet night, rage against the dying of the light.  Do not ask for whom the bell tolls. May the angels lead the into paradise.  These are some that remain lodged in my head.

And then there is Memento Mori, the command to be mindful of death. I just learned, by googling, that currently popular skull tattoos, rings, and other skull insignia are called “memento mories,” though I don’t know what they actually mean for those who sport them.

There are endless resources online for quotes about death (some significant, others less so), mostly supplied by the funeral industry for words to accompany their services.  Unfortunately, as I’ve scanned such sayings and received devotional cards, it seems that too many of them continue the past taboo by humming sweet nothings about the way beyond.

Let me counter such sweetness and light with the assertion argued by my mentor Lynch in an article he titled “Death and Nothingness.”  There really is, he argues, not much we can say about death with any clarity since death (this is his point), is a great form of nothing.  Death means the hospital facts, and beyond that nothing more can be known.  Freud and others have said that this ignorance is the origin of religious illusions.  Yet Lynch argues that authentic Christianity must accept the reality of death as a nothingness.  In the end, there are no special lights at the end of some tunnel, nor moments of a great re-counting of one’s life, not even some final decision for good or evil.  People may well have such experiences, but it only means that they are not really dead.  Yet we believe that Jesus really died.  Else he was not really human, but some sort of demigod. And we certainly are – despite endless heroic pretensions – really human and we really will die. 

Which brings me happily to the hospice movement.  It was once opined, and my father shared this idea, that for the most part you only go to hospitals to die.  So avoid them like hell.  (My father and most of my predecessors had few doubts about the reality of either death or hell.)  I also seem to remember reading that the rhetorical norm in hospitals was not to talk about death – be upbeat; we’re all about healing people.  Yet in fact most in the end still came to the hospital to die.  And now, thankfully, we have the possibility of hospice care in special hospital units and in most facilities for the aged, and at home.  So we do talk about death, about meds to mitigate its suffering, and so on.   

Which somehow takes me to the treatment of death in our arts and fictions.  Where, it seems to me, death is at once almost omni-present and still largely avoided.  I think of the recent and award nominated re-do of All Quiet on the Western Front.  Supposedly an even better depiction of wartime death than the French original.  Indeed, the very long film is filled with depictions of dead soldier’s faces, of bodies falling and flying, of explosions and gunfire, and (if I remember) of both urgent rescues and tearful dying scenes. Yet I honestly believe that the whole extravaganza constitutes an artistic avoidance of the actualities of death and dying.  And I also think that this film exemplifies the treatment of death in much/most popular cinema and TV.  There is a sensational amount of death, all presented sensationally, and thereby constituting a denial of death.

Yet there are, thankfully, better dramatic depictions of death.  See, for instance, Terrance Mallik’s The Thin Line and A Hidden Life (both war stories), or the recent Irish film Calvary.  And many other good films and dramatic tragedies and fiction.  Yet little from television comes to mind.

I assume, dear reader, that you have many more examples and wider reflections to add should you wish to continue to reflect on death during the remainder of Lent.

I end with recalling a practice of Memento Mori.  In my early years in religious life, before the reforms of Vatican II began to kick in, we had a communal prayer practice called “Preparation for Death”.  As I remember it (incorrectly no doubt), the community gathered in a prayerful silence for a guided meditation on various aspects of the reality of death, my own death. How should I live as a preparation for death?  Years later we’ve joked about the usefulness of this ritual for young men in their late teens and early-20’s.  For us, the exercise, whatever the guiding questions, probably led much more to mental dozing and distraction. Few at that age can think seriously about death.  And yet….  The ritual marked my memory in a way that helps me now, in my 80’s.

I hope that in some way this writing may contribute to your reflections about “returning to dust” during the remainder of this Lent. 

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